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Posts Tagged ‘Penang’

This week at a global nomad dinner party — guest list drawn up virtually by a mutual friend who met the diners all over the world — I had the pleasure of chatting with an artist and his architect wife. Seattle-area residents, they spend a third of their time abroad in places like Kerala, India and the Neapolitan island of Procida, creating public art and advising governments on historic preservation and ways to make it a sustainable choice.

Penang shophouse

Penang shophouse

A year before I moved to Penang, the couple was based in that Malaysian state. Patricia worked with local officials on a conservation plan for the Georgetown city center, a collection of vernacular architecture unmatched by other Southeast Asian nations making it a candidate for UNESCO’s World Heritage status. In modernizing, hot-to-trot Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore leveled most of their shophouses. (The New York Times highlights one Singapore restoration this week.) She inventoried a thousand shophouses. These two- or three-story rowhouses mostly built between the 1890s-1930s with a shared five foot-wide covered arcade were both places of work and home, ensuring 24/7 vibrancy in the tropical port city.

To me, shophouses embodied the equatorial island’s melange of cultures and its exotic mercantile history.

I marveled at the crumbling lime facades and the multilingual signs that reflected the city’s waves of traders, immigrants and British administration. A native majority saw $$ in tearing them down, so openly loving these decrepit structures under threat was my foreigner quirk.

Here’s Patricia on the merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles in Penang’s shophouses:

From the Chinese came the courtyard plan, the rounded gable ends and the fan-shaped air vents; from the Malay came the carved timber panels and the timber fretwork; from the Indians, urban construction techniques, including a hard-wearing plaster; from the Europeans, French windows and decorative plasterwork.

How does architecture influence your understanding of a place, its people and history?

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The fresh perspective of an outsider-on-the-inside releases energy from all directions. What strikes us about a place — and may entice our fellow country-people  – often does not resonate to the same degree with the average native.

I was pleased to meet an expat woman entrepreneur on LinkedIn last week who was once a director at the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce. She now advises the Malaysian Tourism Ministry, sourcing products developed by foreigners so I’ve been revisiting a feverish amusement from a decade ago when I lived in Kuala Lumpur.

To enjoy the Newly Industrialized Country where hand-woven palm frond baskets were fast being replaced by pink plastic bags, I conceived a signature line of Southeast Asian travel mementoes, and a database of purveyors of exotic experiences like this on the island of Langkawi, on the island of Penang, and outside Kuala Lumpur. I called the venture first Cool Arts South Sea and then Flaming East.

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Inspired by history but not tethered to it, my Flaming East concept embraced the original wonder of the region’s watery crossroads, from the Renaissance’s Age of Discovery (with its empire-building and search for trade-routes) to the steamer trunks-and-servants Golden Age of Travel. All spiked with the delirium only a good bout of malaria could provide….

homepage

homepage

By the 1990s we were missing the boat, I moaned in my business proposal:

“The part of the world that lies around the South China Sea,” as one European narrator so circuitously referred to it, was once immersed in an illustrious mystique.  Pirates and monsoons held sway on the seas while headhunters and mosquitoes did their part in the interior. Yet for several centuries an international set of adventurers, traders, colonizing industrialists and pleasure travelers risked the tropical hazards. Along with Asiatic goods and unimaginable riches, fanciful tales filtered home: of ancient races, shining temples and blue, impenetrable jungle. Even the air was different here, the east wind apparently laden with the aroma of silks, sandalwood, spices and camphor. Well, no longer.”

To be honest, Southeast Asia’s enveloping assault on the senses continued. But colorful naiveté and uncensored awe were in short supply where I came from. Writing about the past of the place caused my politically-correct, Pacific Northwest spellchecker to protest. I was flaming the East! Didn’t I really mean “cinnamon” when I typed “Chinaman”?

Have you envisioned a tourism campaign, service or product for a locale where you’re the outsider-on-the-inside? What does it show about the place, and you?

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